More on Psychotherapy
200 calls later, some questions need answering
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
This week's column is a follow-up to a recent column.
With the exception of a story I wrote in the late '70s for the old Sunday
Magazine of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I don't recall ever receiving
as much personal feedback as I did to a column of a few weeks ago. The column,
about "Why Some of Us Have Left Psychotherapy," provoked nearly 200 phone
calls. A few, predictably, were from angry psychologists, but the vast majority
were from mental health professionals and clients who have become similarly
disenchanted with the field.
At the risk of a self-interview, here are answers to the most common questions
Are you saying that all psychotherapy is useless?
Not at all. I'm saying that once a person has explored biography and its
ties to present thinking and feeling, traditional psychotherapy doesn't offer
much besides a container in which to vent. The usual experience of this,
though, is that the therapist is carrying the prejudices and agendas of
developmental psychology. Thus, for example, your present-time relationships
necessarily recapitulate your relationship with a parent. The idea is that
you see this, you complete your work with your parent, you create new
self-parenting skills and you will be liberated from so-called dysfunctional
relationships. It's a lovely idea that rarely works.
And how is the movement toward soul work or psychopoetics
Because we are always asking what is being expressed in the relationship
with the parent and with the present day mate in terms of our destiny and
the meaning we are in the world to discover. We learn to see our suffering
in terms of our life path. This is a Buddhist approach in some ways. Life
cannot be without suffering; it never has been. But it is a very recent fantasy
that childhood should be an idealized state of innocent pleasure. The pain
of my own childhood drove me into my imagination, my destiny. Developmental
psychology tells me I should demonize the pain. It took me years to confront
the pain of my childhood and then it took me far longer to confront the way
psychology was entrapping me in the constant review of my traumas. Soulwork
tells me the pain of my childhood amplifies my destiny.
Aren't you just talking about a different approach to
No! Psychotherapy has great uses in helping people through crises and it
has value for people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders. As a tool of personal
growth, though, it no longer works well. Uncovering destiny, learning the
perceptual function of the heart, raising the aesthetic function and increasing
the imaginal skills -- none of these are part of training for psychology.
Is this really new?
Not at all. The forerunners of modern psychology -- from the Homeric mythmakers
to the Rennaissance pupils of the Florentine Academy and the neo-Platonic
Sufis -- all understood this well. The modern heirs to those traditions --
from Adler to Jung and Reich -- were forced to the periphery and the modern
academy still holds them in contempt. The result, unfortunately, is the grim
literalizations of the New Age -- a compensatory expression of the academy's
rejection of psychology that lacks readily material demonstrability. This
goes all the way back to Aristotle, actually. He didn't reject the notion
of the soul, for example, but felt compelled as a scientist to "invent" its
substance, the astral body, the material of the stars.
What about psychiatry?
Psychiatry has an abysmal record of abuse of human beings. In electroschock
therapy, for example, it hasn't come that far from the days when suffering
people were tied up and dunked in ice-cold water. While many medications
today are effective in treating a broad range of disorders, they are quite
ineffective for many people too. If you actually read the studies, they're
not that impressive. The anti-depressants, for example, just don't work for
many people. And why should they? Again, depression, like any symptom, has
to be situated in a broader context than that of the individual life. We
live in a manic society that overvalues productivity. Anyone whose destiny
does not accommodate that myth, and it is a myth, is likely to end up depressed.
Thirty years ago, countless women were taking Valium to medicate themselves
against the pain of exclusion. How come they're taking Prozac today? Anxiety
and depression do not just arise in the indvidual's experience and chemistry.
They are symptomatic expresssions of anima mundi, the psyche of the world.
Peter Kramer writes about this in Listening to Prozac.
Speaking of the New Age, aren't you talking about introducing spirituality
Not necessarily. Besides, that has already been done in transpersonal psychology.
Buddhism, millenia ago, developed a psychology that anticipates what I am
talking about. So, the line between sprituality and psychology as a field
of study and practice was not firm until the turn of this century. People
forget that Freud was a professed atheist and regarded religion as regressive
fantasy. So modern psychology's development is rooted in the split between
religion, the numinous, and science. This is in the "field," in the air,
so to speak, no matter what a therapist says. That is the tradition out of
which therapists come.
Shouldn't it be?
It is one thing to say that religious experience is not scientific. It's
another thing to say that it is without meaning other than a pathological
one. Science describes how things happen. Religion, however, often describes
our lived experience of phenomena. Science is literal in many ways; religion
is not...or shouldn't be. The problem is that, as with the New Age, the wholesale
rejection of religion's value to people insures its literalization and
dogmatization. This is the curse of modern life. It is also why, for another
example, poetry has made such a comeback. People thirst for images, for metaphor
and symbol, for numinous experience. The more science denies it, the more
it will demand expression. It's the return of the repressed...again.
If that's true, how did Freud deal with it in his own life?
Freud, interestingly, came around -- or partly so. He ended up describing
himself more as a writer and artist than as a scientist. In an interview
in 1934, he said that psychoanalysis was better understood by creative people
than scientists. He literally called his case histories "fictions." They
are, indeed, beautifully written, fictionalized stories. He says quite baldly
in this particular interview that earning money required he work as a scientist
but that his heart was in producing art. Jung, on the other hand, was lucky
to marry a rich woman and was less troubled by the need to earn a living
and confine himself to empirical study.
What is the difference between the soul and the spirit?
Neither can be well defined. The soul, or psyche, is that aspect of existence
which demands meaning in life. It isn't transcendent, like the spirit. The
soul wants to achieve its destiny, to realize meaning in existence. Its primary
form of expression is images. It readily personifies itself and will speak
quite clearly if given permission. It will also mediate between the personality
and the spiritual, but it will not tolerate gross spiritualization any more
than ignoring it. In either case, it will produce a symptom -- frequently
in the form of insatiable appetites.
Can you recommend some books that discuss these subjects?
Anything by James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Patricia Berry, Henry Corbin, Alan
Guggenbuhl, Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig, Robert Sardello, Gaston Bachelard, Robert
Romanyshyn, Mary Watkins, Michael Ventura and Lionel Corbett. The primary
journal is "Spring" which, along with a catalog of books, can be ordered
from Spring Publications (860-974-3428).
Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published 1997
Archetypal Advice |